A courier from Kilthandahknarthas was waiting late the next day when Bahzell and his companions finally emerged from the tunnel into the city of Mountain Heart.
Actually, they emerged not so much into as through Mountain Heart, for the city burrowed for over eight miles into the base of White Horn Mountain. Despite its size, Mountain Heart was one of Dwarvenhame's younger cities, having come into existence only after work began on the tunnel. The tunnel's construction had been a joint effort of all the other cities-each of which had, for all intents and purposes, been a totally independent city-state at the time-and Mountain Heart had been intended from the beginning to serve as Dwarvenhame's interface with the Empire of the Axe. Legally, the dwarvish province had actually been a part of the Empire for a little less than a century, but its cities had been an integral part of the Empire's economy for several hundred years, and its people had realized eventual union was inevitable. Still, dwarves seldom rushed into anything, especially when it involved formal relationships with nondwarves, and so they had eased into the new affiliation, and Mountain Heart had been part of that process.
The fact that all the older cities had cooperated in its founding had also led to a degree of interclan mixing which was virtually unheard of among dwarves outside the old Royal and Imperial borders. Dwarves were the most clannish of all the Races of Man. Although few of them shared the sort of arrogant belief in their own inevitable superiority which distinguished the Purple Lords, they did keep very much to themselves, and that held true even in dealings with their own kind. Traditionally, a dwarf's city was also his kingdom, even more independent of one another than the half-elvish city-states of the south, and most dwarvish cities were populated almost exclusively by-or certainly completely dominated by-an alliance of no more than two or three great clans. Their familial structures were so extended and so intricately defined that nondwarves might have been excused from noticing that, but the dwarves knew, and each of their great clans tended to evolve its own distinct, often insular personality over the centuries.
Because of the peculiar alloy of its citizens, Mountain Heart had less of that insularity. It was also closer to the rest of the Empire physically, as well as in outlook, as part of its role as a buffer for the rest of Dwarvenhame. As such, it had a sizable year-round human population and routinely welcomed a far larger seasonal influx of human labor during the winter months than did Dwarvenhame's other cities, and it showed. The travelers had encountered a substantial leavening of humans throughout their trip through the tunnel; once they reached Mountain Heart, the proportion of humans to dwarves increased radically, and, like Belhadan, the fusion of more than one Race of Man had produced a distinct impact on the city's character and architecture.
Unlike its sister cities, Mountain Heart spilled well out beyond the mountain into which it was cut. Its permanent human population was more addicted to seeing the sky, and sturdy stone houses extended for several miles in all directions from the half-dozen entryways cut into the base of the White Horn. Yet as Bahzell emerged from the tunnel and started down the ramp which led up to it, he noticed something very odd about the open-air portion of the city. The first oddity was almost instantly obvious, for Mountain Heart's outer fortifications were almost rudimentary. No doubt they were adequate for routine security, and they could probably be held for at least a short time even against a serious attack, yet they offered far too little depth to permit any long-term defense against an enemy who meant business.
But the logic behind their design was apparent once he thought about it, especially after he noticed the second oddity. The outside portion of Mountain Heart contained only homes, with market squares, parks, and a few shops scattered here and there among them. There were none of the workshops and warehouses which were the heart of the city's economy, for all of those-along with at least three-quarters of its population-were buried deep inside the White Horn. And unlike the light fortifications covering the aboveground portion of the city, the gates and towers and bastions, the portcullises, dry moats, and loopholed galleries protecting any of the entries to that part of Mountain Heart were all but impenetrable. Only a desperate man would even consider voluntarily fighting dwarves underground, and assuming anyone were mad enough to try it here, he would pay a dreadful price just to break the outer defenses. Bahzell still didn't much care for the notion of living underground himself, but there certainly were some advantages to it.
Kilthandahknarthas' courier was (inevitably) a kinsman of his, although not even Kaeritha could figure out exactly how he and the young man, who introduced himself as Tharanalalknarthas, were related. It had something to do with three marriages, a stepson, and a pair of uncles, as nearly as Bahzell could sort it out, but it didn't really matter. Dwarves were used to foreigners' inability to grasp those fine distinctions, and the term "kinsman" was considered a perfectly polite alternative.
Whatever his relationship to Kilthan, Tharanal bore a marked family likeness to his clan head, and it seemed obvious he had deliberately chosen to pattern his own personality on Kilthan's. Despite his youth, he was already beginning to lose his hair, which only heightened the resemblance, and Bahzell and Brandark quickly became comfortable with him. It was also evident that he was very much in Kilthan's confidence, and he was able to bring them speedily up to date on the latest news. Nothing important ever happened in Norfressa without Kilthandahknarthas learning of it-usually sooner rather than later-but Bahzell was still impressed by Tharanal's knowledge, especially about relations between Hurgrum and Navahk.
"They've been going steadily into the chamber pot for the last six months," Tharanal said, squinting up at the clouds as his pony trotted along beside Brandark's horse. Dwarvenhame's roads were even better than those of the rest of the Empire, and despite the cold, damp afternoon's promise of fresh snow, they were clear, at least for the moment, which allowed the travelers to make excellent time.
"In fact," Tharanal continued, turning his head to smile grimly at Bahzell, "you could almost say they started heading that way about the time you and your friend decided to go traveling, Prince Bahzell."
The two hradani glanced at one another, and their mouths tightened. It was one thing to know war between their clans was inevitable, or even to anticipate it as the only way in which their people's lot could be improved. It was something very different to hear Tharanal's blunt confirmation of their fears, and Bahzell knew both of them were thinking of the men they knew-friends and family, as well as enemies-who might soon find themselves trying to slaughter one another in battle.
"I wouldn't say your beating that bastard Harnak within an inch of his life was the main cause for it, mind you," Tharanal went on. "Torframos knows both sides've been circling long enough, looking for their chance. But you struck a spark to the tinder, and no mistake. And it cost Navahk a pretty steep price, too."
"How so?" Bahzell cocked his ears in question.
"Well, let's just say Arvahl of Sondur was already a bit uneasy. From all accounts, it had more to do with the fact that what passes for a road net among Bloody Swords makes his city a natural target for a cross-country attack from Mazgau and Gorchcan, but Arvahl decided to believe the bards' version of what happened between you and Harnak."
"Are you saying Prince Arvahl's gone over to Hurgrum?" Brandark demanded in shocked tones.
"That he has," Tharanal said with obvious relish. Then he seemed to remember he was speaking to a Navahkan, for his expression went suddenly blank and he glanced back and forth between Bahzell and his friend.
"Phrobus!" Brandark said, then shook himself and smiled crookedly at Bahzell. "I knew Arvahl didn't care much for Churnazh, but you really did strike a spark if he could convince his nobles and captains to back him in an alliance with Horse Stealers!"
"With all due respect, Milord, I'd say Churnazh had as much to do with it as Prince Bahzell or even Prince Bahnak," Tharanal said diffidently. Brandark cocked an ear at him, and the dwarf shrugged. "I'm a merchant, not a prince, Milord, but if I tried to run my affairs the way Churnazh runs Navahk, I'd be out of business in a month. You won't need me to tell you what a nasty customer he is, of course, but it's obvious as the nose on your face that he's no match for Bahnak-or, for that matter, that the Bloody Swords as a whole are no match for the Horse Stealers, now that Bahnak's gotten them all pulling together. I wouldn't want to bring up rats and sinking ships, but anyone willing to look the truth in the eye can see that, barring direct demonic intervention, it'll be Churnazh's head that goes up on a pike when push finally comes to shove. And if I were a Bloody Sword prince who didn't want my head alongside his, I'd be looking for a way out, too."
"Does that mean Churnazh's alliance is about to come apart?" Vaijon asked, frowning intently as he followed the discussion and worked to relate it to what Bahzell and Brandark had already told him.
"I wouldn't go that far," Tharanal said, shaking his head. "Arvahl is not only smart enough to see which way the wind is blowing but-if you and Lord Brandark will forgive me, Prince Bahzell-weak-livered enough to want out of the draft. Most of the other Bloody Sword princes and chieftains will stand by Churnazh, I'm afraid. Not because they want to, you understand, but because they're hradani."
"And would you care to be explaining that last little bit, friend Tharanal?" Bahzell demanded. The dwarf glanced at him apprehensively, but the twinkle in the Horse Stealer's eye seemed to reassure him. Some.
"I only meant that they were… ah, determined, Prince Bahzell," he said with the air of a man choosing his words carefully.
"You mean they're stubborn as blocks of granite and too bloody-minded to see another way out," Brandark corrected him with a grim smile.
"It could certainly be put that way, yes, Milord."
"But wouldn't that change if the others knew about Sh-" Vaijon began, only to cut himself off in mid-word as Kaeritha shot him a sudden glance. Tharanal's ears perked up almost visibly at the interrupted remark, and he glanced speculatively at Vaijon, but no one offered further explanation, and he was far too courteous to press. Nonetheless, Bahzell felt certain Kilthan would hear about it as soon as his younger kinsman reported.
But that was all right with him. He'd intended to bring Kilthan fully up to date on his plans-such as they were-from the outset. Kilthan was no hradani, and he had no direct dealings with the Horse Stealers, but he was a canny man who had sources and contacts in the most unlikely places. If anyone outside Hurgrum itself could give Bahzell good advice, it was certainly Kilthan, and Bahzell was only too well aware of how much advice he needed. Now he withdrew into his own thoughts, listening to Brandark shift the conversation to other topics, and frowned as he pondered what Tharanal had already said.
It contained few surprises-except for Arvahl's sudden shift in allegiance. There had been occasional instances in the past in which this or that Horse Stealer or Bloody Sword leader allied with his traditional enemies for momentary advantage, but they were rare. More to the point, ever since it became obvious Bahnak intended to bring the incessant bickering and warfare between the two clan groups to an end once and for all, there had been absolutely no sign of any wavering among the Bloody Sword princes and clan lords. As Brandark had succinctly if unkindly implied, hradani could persist with unbelievable stubbornness even in actions which they knew were ultimately doomed. It wasn't simple stupidity, though there were times Bahzell found himself unable to call it by any other name, so much as a sort of elemental intractability. On the plus side, that same stubbornness meant that once a hradani swore loyalty to someone, he tended to honor that oath. As Bahzell himself had told Tomanak one cold, windy night in the Empire of the Spear, when a hradani gave his word, it meant something, and the very fact that any hradani had survived the Fall and the flight to Norfressa was probably due to the same dogged refusal to yield, however impossible the odds, that kept Churnazh's allies loyal. But it did make for messy politics, since the only way most hradani chieftains could admit defeat was with the point of a sword pressed firmly to their throats. That was why it had been obvious from the outset that the only way the northern hradani would ever be united was by force.
And now it looked as if that force was about to be employed. Bahzell glanced at Brandark and saw an echo of his own introspection in his friend's eyes even as the Bloody Sword listened with apparent concentration to Tharanal's description of the market in gemstones. Bahzell's faith in their friendship was absolute, yet he knew that friendship would be harshly tested when the inevitable happened. Brandark's father and both his brothers were trapped on Churnazh's side, and so was almost everyone else he'd ever known. He himself would be greeted with a hefty degree of suspicion by Bahzell's fellow Horse Stealers, some of whom would regard him as a turncoat and traitor, and if he actually found himself forced to take up arms against other Bloody Swords-
Bahzell shook his head. One thing at a time, he reminded himself. They had to deal with Sharna first. That, at least, should pose no conflict of loyalties, and the revelation that Sharna had established a foothold in Churnazh's domain-and, for that matter, that Churnazh's late, unlamented heir had been a party to it-might just bring the approaching war to a much more rapid conclusion. If Arvahl of Sondur could change sides over Harnak's rape of a servant girl, Churnazh's alliances were likely to start leaking like a sieve when the full story came out. Not even hradani stubbornness would keep his allies loyal if they believed there was even a remote possibility that he'd known about Sharna's activities in his realm. And even some of those who decided he hadn't known were likely to switch allegiances on the basis that any prince worthy of his crown should have known about them… and dealt with them.
Bahzell hoped so. He didn't want to see his friend caught between loyalties, and deep inside, he knew he didn't want to see the sort of war this one was likely to be.
It was going to be bloody, whatever happened, and the outcome would be of intense interest to all of their neighbors, as well. Neither the Horse Stealers nor the Bloody Swords were all that numerous compared to the populations of the human-dominated lands which bordered their own, but any army of hradani had an impact out of all proportion to its mere size. Anyone who had ever had the misfortune to encounter one knew that, and Bahzell was quite certain that no one outside the hradani homelands was going to be pleased by the prospect of any one ruler bringing all of them under one banner. If Bahzell were a Sothoii or an Esganian, he certainly wouldn't have been happy over it.
No, this promised to be a fundamental shift in the power and politics of northern Norfressa-one whose like was seen only once or twice in generations. For good or ill, the northern hradani were about to emerge as a single, unified entity unless someone-or something-from the outside prevented it. Was that Sharna's true purpose in Navahk? To prevent that unity and keep the clans at one another's throats forever? Or did he want the unification to succeed… under Churnazh and his heirs rather than Bahnak? And if Sharna succeeded in insinuating his pincers deeper and deeper into a united hradani empire, what would that mean for the hradani's neighbors? Or, ultimately, for all hradani everywhere? Tomanak knew enough people among the other Races of Man were ready enough already to remember tales of the Fall and automatically associate all hradani with the Dark Gods. If Sharna was able to blow the embers of that distrust and fear back into a blaze, even briefly, he might just manage to provoke the outside attacks which could finally destroy Bahzell's people.
From what Bahzell knew of him, Sharna would probably find that almost as enjoyable as exerting control through Harnak would have been. At the very least, Demon Breath would seize any opportunity to destroy Bahnak and all he stood for. That made it personal, and Bahzell felt his lips trying to curl up and bare his teeth at the thought. No doubt a champion of Tomanak shouldn't think in such terms, but he rather doubted his deity would hold it against him just this once.
And however Tomanak might feel, it was time and past time for Sharna Phrofro to discover that there were easier targets-and far safer prey-than Horse Stealer hradani.